There’s a bit of a mania at the moment for rediscovering lost plays. This is understandable, laudable even, in a world where so often we’re expected to get excited about seeing the same old characters in the same old plays but – wait – this time played by Jude Law! But the problem with buried treasure is that sometimes all the effort of hunting it down and digging it up can lend it a lustre that isn’t really its own.
Director Jonathan Rigby certainly believes that Sylvia Rayman’s 1951 play Women of Twilight is just such a lost classic, having undertaken a long search to rediscover and restage what was once hailed as ‘London’s Most Daring Play’. So let’s imagine ourselves at some theatre history version of The Antiques Roadshow – what exactly has Mr Rigby brought to the table?
Without a doubt it’s an interesting piece, taking us into the wretched establishment of Helen Allistair who offers overpriced refuge to unfortunate young women who have fallen pregnant out of wedlock, and are consequently turned away everywhere else they try. The play follows ten of these girls, eking out an existence in the squalid basement of the house, and the indignities they must endure both at the hands of the sinister Mrs Allistair (who, it transpires, is underfeeding the babies, blocking access to justice and even dabbles in babyfarming) and of 1950s society.
It’s not surprising that this play shocked in its time – an exposé of a deeply uncomfortable subject, written by a woman and featuring not a single man in its world. It’s an honest, brave and tender play (here in a staging that brings out all of these qualities). But it’s by no means perfect. The director clearly regards it as a predecessor to the British ‘kitchen sink’ drama that would develop later in the 50s, and dismisses any attempt to label it as Dickensian. Ultimately though, this is no piece of social realism, and the harder this production strives to subdue the more melodramatic tendencies of the piece, the more impishly they strive to re-exert themselves.
Characterisations are broad and at times overblown (there are at least three or four too many characters, introduced continuously and confusingly throughout the piece). The play’s dialogue seems to be bogged down in its period, where better writing swims and delights in the mores of its time. It never seems more natural than in the pitch-perfect clipped tones of Elizabeth Donnelly as Christine. And ultimately, this play gives in to sentimentality and implausibility.
This production is at its best when it stops resisting and embraces some of these undeniable elements. There are some wonderful lines about kippers and pressure cookers (delivered with relish by Vanessa Russell), and Sally Moretemore is a suitably spiderly villain – half Mrs Danvers, half Miss Hannigan from Annie. It’s wonderful to see such a strong ensemble cast at work on the fringe, all sharing a clear conviction of the dank world of the piece and playing with complete conviction. In a uniformly strong cast, special mention goes to Elizabeth Donnelly who manages to make the fragile innocence of her gateway character engaging (no easy task); the quietly intense, deeply felt performance of Claire Louise Amias, stigmatised by a murder committed by the man she still loves; and Emma Reade-Davies who gives an affecting portrayal of Sal, tackling her disability with restraint and sensitivity. The direction too is sure, making effective use of the space, and as clear as the increasingly tangled script allows.
There’s much to like in this tight, riveting production, and the director is right in describing the play as worthy of more attention – a ‘historical freak’. There’s just a tad too much reverence and effort to imbue the play with modern sensitivities and subtlety. This, I think Rayman was saying, is an unbelievable gothic fairytale. In fetid cellars, outcast women are having their babies taken from them by evil manipulators. But what’s most shocking about this fairytale is that it’s true, and happening right now in 20th-century Britain. The melodrama is the message.
Women of Twilight plays at The Pleasance, Islington until 27th April 2014